Thinking about Diaspora at the Jewish Museum

An interactive display at the Jewish Museum 
I met my first Jewish person during the political turmoil of the 1980s when the Philippines was suddenly inundated by scores of foreign correspondents.

I wouldn't have known that my American friend, Steve, was Jewish if it hadn't been for him constantly  referring to his shoes as 'jews' and joking that his mother was checking up on whether he was 'going to temple' in Manila.

When Steve came round to have lunch with my family,  my mother went up to him and said, 'Are you a JEW?' I should have been mortified but I knew my mother didn't mean any offense. The Philippines being the only Catholic country in Asia, we were steeped in Bible story - and Steve being our first Jewish person, my Mum felt like she was meeting Moses.

I was thinking of that hilarious encounter as I arrived at my speaking venue this morning. 

The Jewish Museum's Miranda Lopatkin explaining how Jewish immigrants settled into trades in the East End of London

I do love the Pop Up Schools Programme - the idea of bringing authors and children together in evocative spaces to enrich the discussion of books is such a winner. Last year, the Pop Up schools programme sent me to the Foundling Museum, where I used my reportage on children left behind by immigration as a framework for discussing Tall Story. It was one of the most emotional events I've ever done.

This year, they sent me to the Jewish Museum in Camden to speak to girls from Elizabeth Garret Anderson School - famous for their "special relationship" with Michelle Obama.

The artist Miranda Lapotkin conducts school
sessions at the museum.  
It's a gorgeous little museum, with gentle exhibitions and testimonials of the many strands of Jewish story. The carefully displayed artefacts told the story of a people journeying from many parts of the world in search of home. It's moving to think that this journeying has been going on for hundreds of years - especially moving for someone like me, who herself is a member of a much younger diaspora.

I started by talking about other diasporas - the Africans carried across the Atlantic by the Slave Trade, the millions of Chinese who left the wars and famines of China, the Irish, the Indians, and finally the Filipinos.

Ferdinand Marcos. He was
president for most of the time
 that I was growing up.
I adapted my usual presentation so that I could talk about the Filipino migration phenomenon, how instability under 20 years of the Marcos dictatorship began an exodus that continues to this day.

First, the professionals left. Doctors, scientists, architects, engineers, professors ... it was called the 'Brain Drain'. But things got worse, there was violence in the streets and Marcos declared Martial Law. And even more people left. This time, the working class. Labourers, carpenters, plumbers, seafarers, cooks. And then the women began to leave.

I remember when I first heard of it. Rumours at my primary school that several of my teachers were leaving to work as maids in the UK. And then suddenly it was as if everyone was going. Thick and fast they left.

Today, you will find Filipinos all over the world - catering staff, care givers, cleaners, maids, nurses, hotel workers. The migration phenomenon in the Philippines means that 11 per cent of our population live and work in another country. Eleven per cent. Everyone I know in the Philippines - yes, everyone - has a brother, a sister, a cousin, an uncle, someone connected to them, who has left home.

My Dad left us to work in Libya. 

I told them about my own family's experience of it - when work dwindled my father, an architect, went to Libya to work in construction in the eighties, with devastating results to our family life. One of my sisters went on to sing with a band, performing in Jakarta and Singapore. In Indonesia, she met her husband, a Filipino who was working as a basketball player. Another brother has worked in China, as a director of corporate media. And so it goes. One of my brothers currently works as a teacher in Korea. And here I am, in London.

Nobody has been left untouched by the phenomenon and one constantly wonders what effect it's going to have. What future for a country where everyone's just waiting to leave?

Later, Miranda Lapotkin, a talented artist who leads school sessions at the museum, showed the children artifacts from Jewish families that came to London at the turn of the century, then took us upstairs to see the exhibition which told of a people striving to belong without losing their unique identity.

As I walked through, examining the dolls, costumery, and objects of unforgotten lives, I wondered what our own Filipino Migrant Museum would have to show. Job advertisements. Nurse's ID badges maybe. Photographs of the children the nannies are bringing up, photographs of the children they left behind. Photos of family reunions on the rare occasion that people return. Replacement ingredients for beloved Filipino dishes. What will our artefacts say about us?

With thanks to the Jewish Museum, Miranda Lapotkin, Caroline Marcus, Nancy who helped with everything, the teachers and children of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the assessment lady from Pop Up (I should have written down your name!) and the surprise posse of students training to become history teachers from the Institute of Education.

A doll brought over by a child refugee on the Kindertransport from Germany in 1939

A South African Jew imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities marked time in this bible during his solitary confinement.

Objects that Jewish pedlars of the 18th and 19th century would have sold 

Jewish actors in a 1946 Yiddish production of The Merchant of Venice

A section of the museum was devoted to Holocaust survivors

Video testimony from a survivor

The children saw this and came rushing to me saying 'look, look, the boy in the striped pyjamas!' We stood around talking about what a sad movie that was.